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Dive, robot: Students use technology to help find shipwrecks

Clatsop County's top student robot-builders are preparing to dive under the sea in search of shipwrecks.
By Edward Stratton

The Daily Astorian

Published on March 3, 2016 9:07AM

Last changed on March 3, 2016 10:36AM

Clockwise from bottom left: Brenton Davis, Georges Oates Larsen, Jonathan Kaminski, Darby Cullen, Sam Daire, and Ashley Fish in the physics lab at Clatsop Community College.

Joshua Bessex/The Daily Astorian

Clockwise from bottom left: Brenton Davis, Georges Oates Larsen, Jonathan Kaminski, Darby Cullen, Sam Daire, and Ashley Fish in the physics lab at Clatsop Community College.

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The Maritime Archaeological Society recently adopted the Beeswax Wreck Project, the long-running search for what is believed to be a Spanish galleon that sank near the Nehalem Spit in the late 17th century.

Submitted Photo

The Maritime Archaeological Society recently adopted the Beeswax Wreck Project, the long-running search for what is believed to be a Spanish galleon that sank near the Nehalem Spit in the late 17th century.

Beachcombers have long found marked blocks of beeswax, like this piece found in 1915, that the investigators with the Beeswax Wreck Project believe are from the Santo Cristo de Burgos, a Spanish galleon coming back with commodities from Manila, Philipines, when it sank in the late 17th century.

Submitted Photo

Beachcombers have long found marked blocks of beeswax, like this piece found in 1915, that the investigators with the Beeswax Wreck Project believe are from the Santo Cristo de Burgos, a Spanish galleon coming back with commodities from Manila, Philipines, when it sank in the late 17th century.

The Maritime Archaeological Society believes the remains of the Spanish galleon Santo Cristo De Burgos are located near the coastline off of Manzanita.

Edward Stratton/The Daily Astorian

The Maritime Archaeological Society believes the remains of the Spanish galleon Santo Cristo De Burgos are located near the coastline off of Manzanita.

Georges Oates Larsen tinkers with pieces of the OpenROV in the physics lab of Clatsop Community College on Wednesday.

Joshua Bessex/The Daily Astorian

Georges Oates Larsen tinkers with pieces of the OpenROV in the physics lab of Clatsop Community College on Wednesday.

Darby Cullen and Jonathan Kaminski show what the finished OpenROV will look like. They plan to have the underwater exploration robot done by the summer.

Joshua Bessex/The Daily Astorian

Darby Cullen and Jonathan Kaminski show what the finished OpenROV will look like. They plan to have the underwater exploration robot done by the summer.

Scott Williams has been searching for a shipwreck off of Manzanita for the past decade through the Beeswaw Wreck Project, adopted recently by the Maritime Archaeological Society.

Edward Stratton/The Daily Astorian

Scott Williams has been searching for a shipwreck off of Manzanita for the past decade through the Beeswaw Wreck Project, adopted recently by the Maritime Archaeological Society.

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A rigging block found in 1992 by a beachcomber is believed by investigators with the Beeswax Wreck Project to be from a Spanish galleon that sank near Nehalem Spit in the late 17th century.

Submitted Photo

A rigging block found in 1992 by a beachcomber is believed by investigators with the Beeswax Wreck Project to be from a Spanish galleon that sank near Nehalem Spit in the late 17th century.

Porcelain is among the artifacts washing up on the Nehalem Spit from what investigators with the Beeswax Wreck Project believe is from the Spanish galleon Santo Cristo de Burgos that sank near the beach in the late 17th century.

Submitted Photo

Porcelain is among the artifacts washing up on the Nehalem Spit from what investigators with the Beeswax Wreck Project believe is from the Spanish galleon Santo Cristo de Burgos that sank near the beach in the late 17th century.


A select group of the top student robot-builders assembled Tuesday in physics instructor Pat Keefe’s bottom-floor laboratory at Clatsop Community College.

The team, comprised of engineering, mathematics and other technologically gifted students from Astoria, Warrenton and Jewell, is tasked with building a new underwater robot for the Maritime Archaeological Society to find shipwrecks around the mouth of the Columbia River and on the North Coast.


The team


Organizing the construction of a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, is Georges Oates Larsen, head of the college’s underwater robotics team and a member of the archaeological society.

“We were looking into the possibility of having the competition ROV do these missions,” Larsen said. “We looked at that, and that ended up being a little too expensive. We switched gears and said ‘Hey, it would be really interesting if we could start up an ROV program.’ We could create a division of the ROV club that’s responsible for constructing and working with an OpenROV.”

The archaeological society, using a grant from the Clatsop County Cultural Coalition, purchased a submersible from OpenROV, a company that manufactures inexpensive kits for educational programs.

“It’s an experience for sure,” said Darby Cullen, a mechanical engineering major recruited to build the robot. “We’ve explored space, and we haven’t explored underwater to any remarkable degree.”

Cullen, along with fellow engineering student and Jewell School graduate Jonathan Kaminski, are novices to robot-building but largely in charge of assembling the submersible. Helping them and Larsen, who specializes in the software and wiring, are Brenton Davis and Ashley Fish, lead members of Warrenton High School’s underwater robotics team, and Sam Daire, another college student who has been a part of the robotics teams at the college and Seaside High School.

Larsen said the team hopes to have the submersible ready this summer for their first mission: exploring the wreckage of the Silvia de Grasse, a packet ship carrying lumber that sank in the Columbia River near Pier 39 in 1849.

“They know where it is,” Larsen said. “We’re just going and inspecting it.”

After that comes the challenge of taking the submersible into more open waters. Larsen said team members have signed nondisclosure agreements, searching for some shipwrecks that have yet to be found.


The Beeswax shipwreck


The archaeological society met in Astoria in February and voted to adopt the Beeswax Wreck Project as their own. Scott Williams, archaeologist with the Washington State Department of Transportation, is the principal investigator with the project, which began in 2004.

“Lewis and Clark, the fur traders in the area, the Indians brought them beeswax to trade,” Williams told the annual meeting of the society in the Barbey Maritime Center. “Especially the fur traders know that there are no honeybees. There’s no native honeybees anywhere in the New World. So they asked the natives where they got this beeswax, and they told them there was a shipwreck.”

Williams said he is 99.9 percent sure the source of beeswax washing up over the years on Nehalem Spit near Manzanita is the Santo Cristo de Burgos, a Spanish galleon that started back from Manila, Philippines, in 1693 loaded with beeswax and other commodities destined for Mexico.

“Only the Spanish carry large cargoes of beeswax,” Williams said, adding the markings on the beeswax are Spanish.

Based on the dating of porcelain found on the beach, he said, the shipwreck off of Manzanita most likely occurred between 1680 and 1700, and is likely spread out after being shifted by a large tsunami that hit the Oregon Coast in 1700.

“This is not a salvage or a treasure hunt,” Williams said.

The wreck is protected by state, federal and international law, he said, with the Spanish government likely having first dibs on any wreckage.


Robotic assistance


Over the past decade, the Beeswax Wreck Project has probably spent 20 days total in the field, Williams said, owing to the divers, boats, good weather and water conditions needed to put together a field study.

For the archaeological society, the submersible will allow more dives throughout the year as they try to document shipwrecks. On land, Williams said, the archaeological society needs people to remain vigilant when combing the beach.

“We need people on the beach, if they find stuff, to report it,” Williams said. “Don’t pick it up, put it in your pocket and go. Notify a park ranger. If it’s in danger of being washed away, like something right at the surf line, OK, pick that up and then tell a park ranger.”

For more information about the Maritime Archaeological Society, visit http://maritimearchaeological.org











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